Trabzon – Topluca

Ștefan Cândea

Tea cultures start to ‘jostle through’ the hills of nut trees. In each town (somewhat big) there is a ÇAYKUR factory. Today we met the Lazi community from the villages between Rize and the Georgian border. The Lazi are an ethnic group stemming from a former tribe of the Colchis Kingdom. Less than100.000 Lazi still live in Turkey, spread all over the villages on the Black Sea coast and in Georgia, over the border. Former warriors who survived in an extremely violent region, settled in the area before the Greeks and Turks, the Lazi speak an endangered language: the Lazuri. It wasn’t until the ‘60s that the Lazuri started to be researched and set in a written form by a German professor, Wolfgang Feurstein. In the past, the Turkish state (and before it, the Ottoman power) did its best to prevent the Lazuri from being spoken. For Turkish nationalism, minorities represent a danger, a direct threat to the state.

But the Lazi to whom we have spoken consider themselves to be Turks and have no claims whatsoever as to territory and autonomy. They only demand they keep their language and traditions. We reach Çamlıhemşin, a village considered a departure base for expeditions through the Kaçkar Mountains. Now this is a very interesting moment as the national public broadcaster of Turkey (TRT) has sent a team to film the Lazi community. This is a first for the Lazi. No interviews are taken – the documentary focuses on cultural traditions (dances, songs, embroidery).

Our Turkish colleague formally introduces us to the mukhtar, the head of the village in which they’re filming. A very solemn moment indeed. We sit on the chairs in front of a local tea house. We’re surrounded by some fifteen village men whose eyes gaze upon us with vivid interest. The only woman present is the TRT reporter who is also our interpreter. The mukhtar welcomes us and is curious to find out how we learned about the Lazi. He is very upset with most western reporters who thunder across the region and present them as barbarians. We explain to him what brings us to their region. The mukhtar advises us to be honest while someone adds jokingly that if we aren’t, they’ll look for us and find us wherever we go. And thus, with the last sip of tea, the meeting concludes: the mukhtar has accepted us and informs us we’re his guests and protégés. We will be spending the night in the village, at someone’s house.

The day comes to an end in a village higher up in the mountains, in Topluca, where the journalists and several village elders are invited over to the mukhtar’s house. The village is approximately 1.000 m away and the houses flow slantways in a stream. The recently built buildings are made of brick, have several storeys, running water, electricity and internet. The mukhtar apologizes for not being able to join us at dinner – he must work on his savage bees. The women prepare the food, serve it and aren’t allowed to eat until the men finish.

As the colleague from TRT is present, I take the chance and ask if there are legends in the village about a creature living in the mountains: the germakoçi. The question generates a wrangle between the village elders and the photography director of the TRT team. The director takes out a bunch of prints from his bag and hands them to the cameraman to read out loud. The indignities read make one of the village elders whisper softly: ‘Allah, Allah!’ In brief, virtually nothing is known about the germakoçi, and its translation into Lazuri means ‘mountain man’.

We put up in a house from the village and, in order to show us the hospitality of the Lazi, several young men of the village keep us company until bedtime. We are served tea and challenged to a game of backgammon, where Petruț successfully represents our country. Unfortunately, we do not have an interpreter anymore so the following hours unfold to the sound of dice, interrupted from time to time by ‘pardon’ and ‘çok güzel’, at each doubles series.